Charter Schools

Somerset kindergartners in Coral Gables in limbo for next school year

 

dsmiley@MiamiHerald.com

A month into the school year, when Somerset Academy Gables called to say a coveted seat had opened up, Jorge Guerra pulled his 5-year-old son George out of South Miami K-8 Center and placed him in the charter school’s kindergarten campus.

At the time, the invitation seemed like a blessing. Now, he’s not so sure.

Several weeks ago, Guerra and dozens of other parents learned that the church off Bird Road where their kids attend class had declined to renew the Somerset’s lease, creating a looming enrollment crunch at its main campus about a mile away at Christ Journey Church. The result: George and 65 young classmates are in a sort of limbo, waiting to see where their classes will be housed next year, or if they’ll need to scramble to find a new school.

“We were promised the moon and the stars to get him into that spot,” said Guerra, a financial advisor who commutes to downtown Coral Gables. “And we’re talking about in a span of a couple of months they’re like ‘Oops?’ ”

Somerset Academy board chairwoman Andreina Figueroa says the problem is unprecedented in Somerset’s 15-year, 42-school history. The school, under the management of Academica, is working quickly to address it by locating a new Coral Gables location and will meet with parents Friday in Doral.

But critics of Florida’s charter school regulations say the parents’ plight is an example of flaws in how charter schools are regulated.

“The bigger concern is not what Academica is doing, per se, it’s the fact that the statutes provide no guidance as to what’s occurring,” said Miami-Dade School Board member Raquel Regalado, who represents the Coral Gables area and has been contacted by frustrated parents. “This couldn’t happen in a traditional public school. There would be recourse.”

The problem being sorted out at Somerset Academy emerged in the days before Jan. 18, when Figueroa says Granada Presbyterian wrote to say without explanation that they would not renew the school’s lease. Granada representatives declined to comment for this report.

“This is the first time any of our landlords did not renew. I was extremely shocked,” said Figueroa, who says she tried unsuccessfully to persuade them to reconsider.

The church’s decision created immediate problems for Somerset, which opened the Granada campus at 900 University Dr. after Coral Gables commissioners balked at attempts to expand the school’s main campus to 700 students and instead allowed just 260.

At first, correspondence shows Somerset told parents with children in preschool at the main campus that they would need to find alternatives. When those parents protested, Somerset reversed and told parents of kindergartners at Granada that they would move those kids to a new Somerset school in Kendall and offer to bus them there from Coral Gables and back.

Parents, most of whom commute to Granada from outside the Coral Gables city limits, weren’t happy about that - particularly when they learned the Kendall school hasn’t yet been approved by the district. Others protested that they were left with few options to seek out new schools in the area because Somerset informed them about the campus’ closing after Miami-Dade’s magnet school application deadline passed.

“It really feels like there’s no plan here,” said Julio Cassels, whose twins attend Somerset kindergarten classes.

Not so, said Academica CEO Fernando Zulueta.

Zulueta said Academica is seeking new locations and doing its best to address parents’ needs. He said there is no indication the Kendall location won’t be ready in time for the new school year. He said Somerset hasn’t done anything to keep students or parents locked into spots at its school.

“The parents are free agents. They can go anywhere they so desire if the school doesn’t meet their needs and isn’t responsive to them,” he said. “The school doesn’t own the parents.”

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